November 10

The townsfolk of Haarlem, in Holland, celebrated with considerable pride on this date in 1923 the fifth centenary of the invention of printing by a native of the town, Laurens Janszoon Coster. Of all the claimants to the place of Johann Gutenberg of Mainz, Germany as the first printer, Coster has survived the longest. It is many years since typographic historians have found it necessary to debate the question, but the Coster vs. Gutenberg controversy was a real hot potato, particularly during the 19th century. But probably the most widely quoted of all the writers who urged recognition of Coster as the father of the art was the Dutch historian, Hadrianus Junius, in his book, Batavia, published in 1575. In this volume Junius writes:

“About 120 years ago, Laurence Zanssen Coster inhabited a decent and fashionable house in the city of Haarlem, situated on the market-place, opposite the royal palace. The name of Coster was assumed, and inherited from his ancestors, who had long enjoyed the honorable and lucrative office of Coster, or Sexton to the church. This man deserves to be restored to the honor of being the first inventor of printing, of which he has unjustly been deprived by others.

“As he was walking in the wood contiguous to the city, which was the general custom of the richer citizens and men of leisure, in the afternoon and on holydays, he began to pick out letters on the bark of the beech; with these letters he enstamped marks upon paper, in a contrary direction, in the manner of a seal: until at last he had formed a few lines for his own amusement and for the use of the children of his brother-in-law. This succeeding so well, he attempted greater things; and being a man of genius and reflection, he invented with the aid of his brother, or son-in-law, Thomas Pieterison, a thicker, and more adhesive ink, as the common ink was too thin and made blotted marks. With this ink he was able to print blocks and figures, to which he added letters. I have seen specimens of his printing in this manner: in the beginning he printed on one side only.

“He engaged workmen, which was the source of the mischief. Among these workmen was one Jan—whether his surname be that of Faust, or any other, is of no great importance to me; as I will not disturb the dead, whose consciences must have smote them sufficiently while living. This Jan, who assisted at the printing press under oath, after he had learned the art of casting the types, setting them, and other matter belonging to the art, and thought himself sufficiently instructed, having watched the opportunity, as he could not find a better, he packed up the types and other articles on Christmas eve, while the family was engaged in celebrating the festival, and stole away with them. He first fled to Amsterdam, thence to Cologne, until he could establish himself at Mentz, as a secure place where he might open shop, and reap the fruits of his knavery. . . .”

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